Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Promise of River and Sea

The river-and-sea promise is eternal. A cargo ship navigates the Sugandha River.

“The promise of river-and-sea is eternal – always loyal. Yet as the world has changed so the advantage of Jhalokati’s trading geography is lessened. Evidence of past commercial success isn’t difficult to find. 

Along the town’s waterfront are godowns and stately homes with a story to tell. In Nalchity Bazar lies the century-old grave of a Chinese businesswoman. There’s the engineering feat of the Gabkhan Channel to admire. 

The future is less certain but trade is likely to continue to play a role of significance in the life of the district and town of river-sea memory.”

Loading salt on the Bashanda River, West Jhalokati.

1. How did she feel at first, when she stepped off the boat? Was there a reluctant, deep sigh as her leading foot made landfall; was she consumed with thoughts of what she’d left behind? Or was it with determination and the quiet grin of a plan that she resolutely strode ashore?

We don’t know much but we can assume there was a boat. Even today Nalchity Bazar in Jhalokati District is most accessible by local ferry across the broad Sugandha – the Fragrant River. Besides, she’d come from some distance around a century ago and there was certainly no aeroplane to account for that.

View from the Gabkhan Bridge, Jhalokati.
Was it winter then? Did she step, shivering, onto an unseeable riverbank that had without warning from some foggy nowhere nudged the boat? Or perhaps it was spring, on a morning announced by the cuckoo’s call when there might’ve been the red of polash or krishnachura blossoms to lift her spirits. Those flowers are not famed for fragrance but red is the colour of happiness for the Chinese. They might’ve made her feel welcome.

Did she speak Bangla, not to mention Borishailla-Bangla, and how did it all go, each day after that very first one? How exactly did that Chinese woman manage to settle in Nalchity for some years, alone?

Because in the end it was Nalchity that assumed a most important post in her life – her final resting place.

The century old grave of a Chinese businesswoman.
Maybe it had become home. Maybe there was no way to get home. Why her grave is there, there’s no way to really know.

Even her name is a mystery. It might do as well to think it began with the initial ‘N’ – N. for Nalchity, N. for nomad, N. for north... her ancestry at least came from the north.

On a part of her grave which is situated, out of place, alongside the small but busy road next to Nalchity bus stand, are two figures – an indecipherable Chinese character, or maybe not, and a second symbol that resembles the Bangla ‘Na’.

She was a businesswoman – common knowledge, everybody says so – and it could hardly be a surprise.

Barge navigating the Gabkhan Channel.

2. From the village road alongside the Gabkhan Channel not far from Jhalokati town even today there are boats to be seen – large cargo ships and a low-lying barge with some kind of goods beneath its black tarpaulin. Two small-engine ferries are chugging passengers towards the town side; the steamers plying the route from Dhaka to Bagerhat pass that way.

Jhalokati held the promise of being a new Kolkata.
Built by the British in 1918 the Gabkhan is a vital east-west link for river transport in a region marked by deep, navigable north-south rivers. The British must’ve recognised Jhalokati’s most advantageous trading geography. Though the bulk of the bustle is gone, easy access to the sea has long been the key to sustained, rhythmic activity.

And besides, it’d all happened once before, hadn’t it? It was on the bank of the altogether less suitable Hooghly that the behemoth of trade had once arisen – Kolkata.

The 1981 Government Gazetteer for Bakerganj District which included Jhalokati notes that Bakerganj was a great exporting district in the second half of the eighteenth century, with boats arriving from all parts of Bangladesh to purchase rice in particular. 

“The superior quality Bakerganj rice used to be exported to Calcutta which was facilitated by easy river communication in comparison with other districts. Rice was selling at 17 seers a rupee for best rice and 21 seers a rupee for common rice at Barisal in 1875.”[1]

Jhalokati became one of the largest river ports in the region, with trading products including timber, rice, paddy, coconut and betel nut.

The only automatic rice mill in the region used to be here.
From 1940 to 1975 as a navigation landmark passing steamers could rely on the thick band of smoke rising from the chimney of the only automatic rice mill in the region. The enterprise of Shudhangshu Bhushan Das was enormous, located on a prime site of two square kilometres at West Chandkati. 

It is said the factory siren could be heard from as far away as Barisal.[2]

But in 1975 the factory went bankrupt and the site is barely recognisable – it’s a parcel of open land hosting a few families of squatters.

By the riverfront in town meanwhile, are the ghats and godowns, which are still used. The laneways beyond are littered with car-tyred trolleys for ship unloading – on a Friday the scene is draped in an eerie quiet, as though symbolising the passing of a much busier trading era. There are decorative mercantile-looking villas, most often wanting a little attention.

Laneway near Jhalokati's waterfront
Traders once grew affluent in Jhalokati aboard that dream ship of history that stowed the promise of Jhalokati becoming the next Kolkata.

“We have the Koli but not the kata,” the locals say and it’s true – those days are gone but there’s still a lot going for the nowadays clean, petite town.

Captain and boat engineer Dalilur Rahman with his ship that brings salt to Jhalokati.

3. Boat engineer Dalilur Rahman’s voyages are not at an end. He travels to and from Kutubdia Island near Cox’s Bazar three times each month bringing salt aboard his locally crafted vessel. It’s a 3,200 maund cargo when full and profit runs at 15 – 20,000 taka per trip.

Salt also reaches Jhalokati from Moheshkhali Island and the coastal regions of Chittagong. It’s a year-round product with a peak season from February until May.

Speaking of the peril of pirates.
"10-foot waves in Boishaki"

The journey’s principal peril is pirates, Rahman says, and the sometimes ten-foot waves in the Boishakhi month. He’s been robbed three times in his twenty-five year shipping career.
His cargo is brought to one of the several salt mills still in operation along the bank of West Jhalokati’s modest Bashanda River. Until 1950 salt was refined by hand; before the diesel engine took over.

Unloading salt in West Jhalokati.
There’s an up-plank and a down-plank from ship to shore. In the sunshine a parade of stevedores in lungee and gumchha carry salt in rough sacks on their heads towards the mill door. Each sack weighs about 74 kilograms. Unlike with N., there’s no uncertainty over how they step – it’s a kind of shuffle, a waddle under the weight’s strain – and they walk fast.

On the boat meanwhile is the salt measurer known as Dalim. He works as a koyel, as they call it on the wharves, calculating quantities; and with his additional responsibilities he can earn up to 3000 taka per day when a ship comes in. “I’ve had many jobs,” he says, “I sold nuts on the street and rode rickshaw, but I always earned less than 20,000 taka per month. This job is better.”

In the mills the salt is cleaned with salt water, dried for a few days and iodine is added before packeting and reloading onto market-bound ships. As the stevedores bring the neat sacks of finished product – of either fine or coarse salt, they are handed a small stick to drop into a basket beside the wharf. It’s a novel way of sack counting.

But the salt trade isn’t as straightforward as it once was.

A salt mill in on the banks of the Bashanda in West Jhalokati.

4. Back at the Channel is the iconic Gabkhan Bridge: the pride of Jhalokati. It’s the highest bridge in Bangladesh, designed to accommodate large ships passing beneath. Ironically, the bridge also symbolises the rise of the road transport age.

“The industry is very competitive in transport costs,” says Salauddin Ahmed Salak, president of the Jhalokati Chamber of Commerce, “People used to come here to buy salt but now they don’t need to because of transport.”

Carrying salt into the mill.
Jhalokati still has upwards of ten salt mills and several small-scale flour mills – Salak recently purchased Gazi Salt, the largest mill. But he’s kept busy actively seeking out consumers for his product.

“There are salt mills in Chittagong, Narayanganj and Chandpur,” he says, “Jhalokati is now third or fourth largest producer. 

We used to supply North Bengal and the Khulna belt but now there is an ultra-modern mill in Khulna. They’ve installed an electric machine imported from India and can whiten the salt using gas, which consumers like. It’s not possible here at present.”

Another problem is that salt is purchased in bulk, transported by road to Faridpur and on-sold in counterfeit packets that take benefit from established brand names.

Salt production in West Jhalokati.
Despite Salak’s prediction that the days of Jhalokati’s famed salt being used for household cooking will discontinue, he is optimistic. 

“The future is in industrial salt,” he says, “used in medicines and leather processing.” It doesn’t need the fine, white texture of its domestic cousin.

Besides, for all the value of the Gabkhan Bridge, Jhalokati still takes the advantage of river-and-sea. 

“It costs 60 poisa per kilogram to transport flour from Chittagong by boat,” Salak says by way of example, “By road the cost is 1.5 taka.”

In the salt mill.
Refining salt.

The Chinese grave in Nalchity Bazar

5. Meanwhile across the Sugandha in Nalchity Bazar the locals are quick to gather around her grave, eager to share knowledge of the Chinese woman, N. She’s clearly been the subject of many hours of adda – there can be few places in the world where local heritage is the source of such curiosity, as it is in Bangladesh.

It looks like a Bangla 'Na' and perhaps a Chinese character
One onlooker volunteers, “I’m 86 and the grave was here before I was born.” Others tell of an unsuccessful grave robbery in 1983 – the would-be thieves were caught by a night guard. Across the road is the field known as China Maath, China Field, and any enquiry will likely meet the response that it is her land – still village-recognised a century on.

But where did she come from? “There were some Chinese who lived in South Bengal, centred in Chittagong, since the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago,” says Li Haiwen, Lecturer of Chinese Language & Culture at Dhaka University’s Institute of Modern Languages. Alternatively, she may have arrived from Kolkata where, by the early twentieth century there was a prosperous China Town full of Chinese grocery stores and restaurants. China had even established a consulate in Kolkata.

Worth its weight in salt!
“It was a tradition that early overseas Chinese lived on business,” says Li, “She must’ve been rich to buy land in a foreign country. It would’ve been almost impossible for a girl to marry a local rich man at the time.”

The majority of Chinese emigrant families came from South China and her grave is in the South Chinese style, where the philosophies of feng shui, literally ‘wind-water’, were enlisted in order to promote harmony between any construction and the natural environment around it. 

“In the past Chinese people paid as much attention to the dead as to the living,” says Li. “Graves were built as carefully as houses. The position was important and should receive good sunshine. As we all know, sunshine makes people warm and healthy, especially the elderly. Since Bangladesh is located in the northern hemisphere like China, the headstone should face south.”

“The grave can be called an ‘armchair’ type,” Li continues, referring to the semi-circular wall at the northern foot of the grave, which represents an armchair. “It would make someone feel safer and more comfortable to sit in an armchair than on a stool. It was thought to be the same with the dead.”

The Gabkhan Channel is part of Jhalokati's trading geography.
Although it is generally believed she left no descendants, current upazila nirbahi officer Abu Hasnat Mohammad Arafin speculates she might’ve had a son or daughter who left the district after her death – who else constructed her South Chinese style grave?

There is speculation too about her trade. It certainly wasn’t salt. Local suggestion includes chillies, tamarinds or unprocessed rice. 

Arafin considers she might’ve traded woven mats, the quality shitolpati for which Jhalokati is renowned, perhaps clothes or other handicrafts – sending goods to Kolkata.

Yet the most common guess is that she traded in betel nut, shupari.

“Betelnut is next to rice as far as income out of the betelnut trade is concerned,” reads the Bakerganj District Gazetteer. “Betelnuts are collected in October and the trade continues for a considerable portion of the cold weather. The chief seats of this trade were Dulatkhan, Mehendiganj and Nalchiti. The Mugh [Marma], the Burmese and even some Chinese used to come to Nalchiti to purchase betelnut for Arakan.”[3]

Taking a break at a salt mill.
Perhaps N. arrived in search of betel nut – from Arakan. Maybe she hitched a ride on a large balam of the Marma. But what was it, then, that made her linger?

N. might have spent some years alone in Nalchity but it is hardly likely she was lonely. Upon acquiring even a smattering of Bangla she must’ve been rather busy answering the many questions about China and perhaps-Arakan.

I’d hazard a guess she had many well-wishers, because, a good century after her death with the local enthusiasm concerning her grave, she still does – and there can be no armchair surely, to make a deceased as contented and comfortable as that.

The quiet of a Friday near the Jhalokati ghats.

6. The busiest years of flourishing trade in Jhalokati might have gone. The town might have exchanged its haggle-and-bustle cloak of yesteryear for a more understated and sedate mode of dress. Yet the promise of river-and-sea remains and for Jhalokati District trade will no doubt continue to be a welcome companion.

Salt mill doors, West Jhalokati.
Counting sticks to tally sacks of salt.
House in Jhalokati.

Stevedore Habib tries out the Village Flute.

This article published in Star Magazine here: The Promise of River and Sea

[1] Md. Habibur Rashid (ed.), “Bakerganj District Gazetteer,” Bangladesh Govt. Press, Dacca, 1981, p.188
[3] Md. Habibur Rashid (ed.), op.cit., p.189

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